Is the special relationship between the US and UK going to be stretched to the limit over Lockerbie?
It is expected that this afternoon the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi will be freed from prison on compassionate grounds as he has terminal prostate cancer. Colonel Gaddafi’s private jet is waiting to take him home.
Kenny Macaskill, the Justice Secretary for Scotland, is set to defy intense pressure from Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, to keep Megrahi in jail.
Clinton has said it would be “absolutely wrong” to release Megrahi, adding: “We are still encouraging the Scottish authorities not to do so and we hope that they will not.”
An announcement will be made by at lunchtime GMT today.
It’s unusual for the Brits to annoy the Americans, especially when it comes to foreign policy. Britain is used to being the poodle in the relationship, doing what it is told. So the likely release has begged the question as to whether there is more than just a drop of compassion going on here. What about a drop of oil?
Certainly relatives of the dead believe the deal is about oil. Stephanie Bernstein, whose husband, Michael, was killed told today’s New York Times. “I think this has to do with oil. I think this has to do with politics. And I don’t think this has anything to do with justice.
Comments like these have forced Scottish officials to rebuff repeated allegations of a secret deal about lucrative British contracts on oil. A government spokesman said: “We’ve a strong justice system in Scotland, and people can be assured that the justice secretary’s decisions have been reached on the basis of clear evidence and on no other factors.”
However there is evidence to point to the fact that oil might be involved after all. British parliamentarians on the influential Joint Human Rights Committee have come out saying they were denied the chance to scrutinise the secretive treaty recently signed between the two countries.
Richard Shepherd, a Conservative member, told the Guardian newspaper: “We clearly have an interest because of the discovery of even vaster energy resources.”
He clearly has a point: Libya, once the international pariah because of instances like Lockerbie, is another country which is vastly under-explored for oil and gas. Only 25% of Libya’s vast surface area has been explored for oil so far. It holds 43 billion barrels of oil reserves, the largest in Africa, even greater than Nigeria’s and is seen as a potential alternative to Russia as a supplier of gas to Western Europe.
BP, Shell and BG Group are already in co-operation deals with Libya’s national oil and gas company. BP has an agreement to explore in the West of the country, but it has been beset by “security” problems, that would be eased by Magrahi’s release. “Now that al-Megrahi is released, BP expects to get the go-ahead,” one source in Libya told the Times newspaper.
Shell is also upgrading an LNG plant there. Nor is it just about Libya’s vast oil and gas reserves. The Libyan National Oil Company is said to be bidding for Britain’s second biggest oil refinery, Stanlow in Cheshire, which is owned by Shell too.
So what is more important to the Brits – a good relationship with the Libyans or the Americans?
We will find out what happens in just over an hour….